The Last Duel
Ridley Scott's epic take on a medieval Rashomon-esque tale of sexual assault is cautiously powerful
Ridley Scott is one of the few working directors with a fascination of history. He has made innumerable historical epics from the well-received Gladiator (2000) and Robin Hood (2010) to the messier Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992). The British director has now trained his filmic and historical eye on an incredibly intriguing event in 14th century France: a woman accusing a powerful man of rape.
The Last Duel (2021) takes place in 1370s and 1380s France. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are two squire friends who begin to have different trajectories in life. The brave and ruthless warrior de Carrouges sees himself increasingly slighted by the local Count Pierre (Ben Affleck), whilst Le Gris earns the latter’s favor and receives plentiful gifts and fame. The Last Duel centers around a specific incident, shown from three different perspectives: the rape of de Carrouges’ new wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) by Le Gris.
The film’s structure, of dividing into three parts with each dedicated towards one character’s assertion of the true events will undoubtedly remind many of Rashomon (1950). Kurosawa’s film sought to show the unreliability of narrators in any sort of story and gave the audience the task of deciding who was the more reliable storyteller. With The Last Duel a different objective is sought by using this structure. The Last Duel is written by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, and their skilled writing helps in framing the plot of The Last Duel within current conversations regarding the #MeToo movement.
The Last Duel intelligently plays around with the concept of “he said, she said,” while also laying out the ridicule of such a defense. The Last Duel and its dueling narratives (pardon the pun) is fascinating, not in how a same scene may be played out differently per perspective, but in how we see characters omit certain truths that frame them unfavorably in each narrative. The filmmakers clearly have the objective of showing the credibility of Marguerite and revealing the infantile and self-centered image the men seek out. Tragically, The Last Duel also shows that little has changed in the approach to dealing with such sexual misbehavior accusations after 700 years. This is particularly made clear in a trial scene, where the typical slander and doubtful questions are thrown at Marguerite that we see thrown at brave women today: “you said in the past you thought he was handsome,” “how did you know you weren’t leading him on.”
Scott brings about his dedicated craftsmanship to The Last Duel, helping the film don the aura of an epic. This is achieved thanks to the expert filming of battle scenes, the fantastic cinematography, and as always, the meticulous attention to historical detail and accuracy. Scott does well to show the differences in characterization in each perspective, but doesn’t let his actors get carried away in exaggerating such division; the changes are subtle yet effectively communicated.
Scott has an embarrassment of riches with his cast. Damon is strong, but it is Driver and Comer that steal the show. Driver relishes his role, playing with the grey areas of his character and never committing to one conclusion of his character. Comer, meanwhile, is rather sidelined, purposefully, for the first two thirds of the narrative, but given her moment to shine when it is Marguerite’s perspective that’s expounded. The British actress is finally breaking onto the big screen after her initial blockbuster “reveal” in Free Guy (2021) and dedicated work in TV in Killing Eve (2018-) and The White Princess (2017).
In the end, The Last Duel is a rather fascinating take on the #MeToo debate. It finds an incredible true setting for which to set its characters against, helping to provide entertainment as well as social thought for viewers. Scott might let the runtime unspool too much at certain points (the film is over two and a half hours long), but this permits an immersion into the story and stakes that would otherwise have been too shallow. The Last Duel is a solid and intriguing historical epic, worth it for viewers with a big chunk of time on their hands.